THE EVANS PAINTING – AND A LITTLE MIRACLE
For many years I have been attempting to trace four unidentified sketches by Elizabeth Macquarie, wife of Lachlan Macquarie, an early Governor of New South Wales. As a resident of the Blue Mountains, I would like to believe that among the missing works (last heard of in 1914) is a drawing Mrs Macquarie made of Mount Evans. It was completed while she and the Governor were making their historic ‘royal progress’ across the Mountains in 1815. The road had recently been constructed by convict labour; a working party of just 30 men and 8 guards. It was an incredible undertaking, completed in only six months. Governor Macquarie recorded the circumstances of his wife’s sketch in his diary;
Tuesday 2. May 1815 – ‘Got up early and walked out for a mile in front to view the road.– On my way back had a very fine view of “Mount Evans” distant about 7 or 8 miles to the North West of our present Ground. …..Breakfasted at 9, and set out on Horse-back with Mrs M. at 10 o’clock. Halted on the top of a High Hill about two miles from the Fish River to give Mrs. M. an opportunity of seeing Mount Evans—-and taking a sketch of it….’
Mount Evans was of great significance to Lachlan Macquarie. From its summit two years earlier, surveyor George William Evans first sighted the fertile inland plains around what is now the city of Bathurst. Evans (1780-1852) was a man of many parts; surveyor, explorer, farmer, bookseller, teacher and painter. He was a member of Governor Maquarie’s 1815 journey.
CHANCE & SERENDIPITY
Ten years ago my partner Rob and I flew to the UK, in part to continue my Macquarie quest. For the first time, our English holiday home was occupied by a tenant we were reluctant to disturb. Instead, we rented a flat at Maidenhead, west of London. It was a serendipitous choice. Our landlady Cath was an artist and writer with a strong interest in history. When I mentioned the missing sketches she told me about her friend Errol; a passionate collector with a great deal of material on early New South Wales. We met Errol several days later and were amazed when he told us he owned an 1809 painting by ‘Surveyor’ Evans. ‘You must come and see it’ he said; and soon afterwards we did.
The picture was quite small; an unframed watercolour. Written in sepia ink on the reverse was the name G.W. Evans, and the title, Near Grose Head New South Wales 1809. Grose Head is in the Lower Blue Mountains, near the town of Springwood.
Evans had portrayed a powerful scene of a river cascading through a heavily timbered gorge. At the water’s edge are two tiny Aboriginal figures, dwarfed by their surroundings. They are depicted in a relaxed pose, completely in harmony with nature. Consciously or unconsciously, the artist had highlighted the vast cultural difference between the indigenous population and the European settlers. In 1809 the newcomers were struggling to conquer the Blue Mountains and to expand the Colony. It was a venture in which, rather ironically, Evans himself went on to play a significant role.
The picture was in pristine condition. We found it hard to believe it was 200 years old. It had been in Errol’s possession for some time, and was previously owned by the late Australian art collector Thea Rienits. Thea and her husband Rex Rienits amassed a large collection of early colonial art. The couple were living in London when they acquired the Evans painting in 1963, from an auction at Sotheby’s.
Rob and I suggested that if Errol should decide to part with the Evans painting, we would love to see it go to Sydney’s Mitchell Library. You may think the Art Gallery of New South Wales a more appropriate place, but as a writer and researcher the Mitchell is dear to my heart. They hold an impressive collection of historical artworks.
Fortunately our new friend was conscious of the painting’s historical importance to New South Wales, and understood our longing for it to return home. Before we left England he gave us permission to approach the Library on his behalf.
I contacted Richard Neville, then manager of the Original Materials’ Branch. Twelve months months earlier, Richard had written me a wonderful letter of recommendation to the Bodleian Library in Oxford. This was to prove invaluable during the researchfor my book, The Water Doctor’s Daughters. It was such a pleasure to be able to repay his generosity.
Though very excited at the possibility of acquiring another painting by Evans, staff at the Mitchell warned there were many excellent lithographs of his work, albeit quite valuable in their own right. Arrangements were made for an expert to inspect the painting in London. To the delight of all parties (particularly me!) it was confirmed as an original, highly finished watercolour; unsigned, but firmly attributed to George Evans. It measures approximately 37cm in width and is painted on thick card. Negotiations began and happily the watercolour was purchased by the Library within weeks.
Richard Neville considers the picture very unusual in that it focuses on a pure, unimproved landscape. He explains; ‘Nearly all colonial landscapes of this period concentrate on landscapes improved or enhanced by progress and agriculture – this watercolour on the other hand, is a well-constructed, well-resolved image of a wild landscape, inhabited only by two small Aboriginal figures, themselves signifiers of wilderness.’
It is believed that the scene pictured is of the Grose River near its junction with Burralow Creek, and that the promontory in the middle of the picture represents Paterson Hill.
There was further excitement when the backing paper of the watercolour was removed, revealing an earlier inscription. The title of the work was written in the same hand as that on other paintings by Evans originally owned by William Paterson (for whom Paterson Hill was named). Paterson was the first European to explore the Grose River in 1793. In 1809 he was acting as Lieutenant Governor of New South Wales prior to the arrival of Lachlan Macquarie. During this period he commissioned a series of watercolour views of the Sydney and Parramatta regions by a number of artists, including George Evans. If Evans’ Grose River watercolor was commissioned by Paterson it may explain why Paterson Hill was included in the composition. For an artist hoping to secure further work it made sense to gently massage the ego of one’s patron!
The painting is a companion work to another 1809 watercolour by Evans titled, View of part of Hawkesbury River at 1st fall and connection with Grose River N.S. Wales. Evans was then farming at the Hawkesbury settlement, where he had received a land grant in 1805.
George Evans died in Hobart on October 16th 1852, aged 72. He was not a prolific artist, perhaps due to his many other interests. For this reason the purchase of the Grose River watercolour is very significant. Of even greater importance is the fact that in Richard Neville’s opinion the painting could be the earliest surviving depiction of a Blue Mountains view.
According to Robin Walsh, an acknowledged expert on the Macquarie era, Evans’ accomplishments have been overlooked for far too long; ‘I am not sure why this has been the case when his travels and activities were so extensive and exhaustive. It was a remarkable life.’ Robin Walsh is among those hoping the acquisition of the 1809 painting may lead to a long overdue exhibition highlighting George Evans’ contribution to Australia; as surveyor, explorer…. and artist.
Meanwhile, the discovery of the picture allows me to hope that Elizabeth Macquarie’s missing sketches will eventually be located and returned to Australia as well, particularly her 1815 drawing of Mount Evans.
Here is a link to the intriguing story of those Macquarie relics, including two which have already found their way ‘home’ …. a mysterious portrait and the Governor ‘s campaign desk.
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